Even with Van Zyl’s completed, there was still hundreds of kilometers of off-road riding to be done to get out of oblivion and back to civilisation. Our next planned fuel stop was still 450kms away in Raucana, while the next place we could get a meal and place to stay was about 285kms away at Epupa Falls. If you started a ride at the bottom of the pass without completing it you’d think you’re in hectic adventure riding paradise, with sand and rocks, climbs and descents in excess. But compared to Van Zyl’s Pass the rest of the day’s riding was blissfully easy (relatively speaking anyway) and would have been much more fun if we weren’t so exhausted. But it was certainly still fun. For the first part it was sandy twin track through the deserted Marienfluss Valley. We saw a bunch of springbok but apart from that the only sign of life in the area was the two of us.
Sandy track on the way to Red Drum
Made for some pretty fun and easy km
Navigating in the valley bottom was tricky with multiple tracks accessing many unseen Himba kraals and pastures. All the tracks were sandy twin track and looked identical, and there was a bit of bush bashing involved in finding the right trail, but find it we did and before we knew it we had reached Red Drum. It really is the kind of place where you’d struggle to navigate by paper maps alone, it could be done but it wouldn’t be easy. Once again, what is worthy of a place name printed on a map in Kakoaland fooled us into thinking we might be able to track down a cold coke, goodness knows we needed one. Turns out Red Drum is literally just a red drum sitting out in the middle of nowhere, placed originally as a navigational aid. The status of Red Drum as a tourist attraction is owed purely to the fact that it is so remote and challenging to get to. We got the obligatory photos before setting out for the community run Marble Camp.
Not much in the way of landmarks around here but this came close. Tracks4Africa says this bakkie was blown up by a landline
One of the empty Himba camps
The old track was deep sand the new track not so much… guess which one we took?
Along the route we didn’t see a soul but did spy a bunch of large, empty Himba camps whose semi-nomadic inhabitants had obviously moved on for better grazing. After flat plains and sandy tracks we found ourselves once again on rocky trails as we neared the campsite. We were granted lovely views and more tough, rocky passes through the hills although thankfully nothing near as steep as Van Zyl’s. Some of the hideously rocky ascents seemed to go on forever and all you could do was rev the guts out of the DRs, ignore the burning in the triceps and power though until the end. It was excellent riding.
Answer: New track
The Famous Red Drum. You will note my spare front tyre is no longer on my right hand pannier
A couple of kilometres from the campground we stopped to chat and noticed that the spare front tyre I had been carrying had come lose of its strap and slid off the right pannier somewhere along the way. We usually have the cable of our pacsafe mesh bag wrapped around it twice to further secure in addition to a double d-ring strap, but knowing we had some difficult riding ahead we opted not to lock the top bag to the rear rack incase we need to remove luggage easily to lift a dropped bike. We checked our photos to try to gauge how far back we might have lost the tyre and placed it somewhere between the bottom of Van Zyl’s and Red Drum. Even if just one of us went back to find it, it meant at least a 40-70km round trip that we just couldn’t spare the fuel for given our plans to ride a fuel free route to Ruacana via Epupa Falls.
So if anyone up that way should see a kid playing with a brand new Pirelli MT21 front tyre…. you’ll know how they got it. On the bright side however was that our current front tyres (also MT21’s) were lasting much longer than we expected them to. Mick then had a particularly clever moment when he decided that he would swap my half worn front for the brand new one Mick was carrying while he would then wear out his current half worn front tyre before replacing it with my half worn front tyre, if that makes sense. When those were worn we would then both be ready to change into the Continental TKC 80 front tyres we were waiting to pick up before leaving Namibia. Clever scheduling I thought and with that we weren’t too cut up about donating a brand new $80 tyre to the desert.
Seriously, if you let these things get to you on a trip like this then you are in for a miserable time. A trip like this is highly conducive to the loss and destruction of everything in your possession, including the bike naturally. So with that we let it go. In my dreams, I imagine a hot, stranded solo motorbike traveller with a destroyed 21” front tyre. considering their unfortunate situation when suddenly he notices a little Himba boy playing with a dusty yet pristine MT21 front tyre…
We made it to the Marble Camp and (surprise, surprise) found ourselves the only people there. It was hilarious how utterly shagged we were after riding a grand total of just 65.2 GPS confirmed kilometres for the day. We were so tired we didn’t have it in us to walk or even ride the 3km to get to the local shop selling cold soft drinks. When we are not riding you will very rarely ever see either Mick or I drinking soft drink but on a bike trip especially in a hot dusty place our appetite for the fizzy sugar water is insatiable. We were faced with the conflicting desire to not wanting to move a muscle and wanting to drink cold coke.
There was one way out or our quandary, which we were slightly uncomfortable with using. Coming from a egalitarian society like Australia it was hard for us to go up to a local guy and offer him cash to go and get drinks that we were too bloody lazy to get ourselves. So it was a cultural conflict for us even though things are obviously different over here and many people would welcome any opportunity to earn money any way they can. And sure enough when I asked the guy running the camp if he would get us some cokes he was more than happy and even had a cooler bag handy for such a task. In the end he came back with 4 icy cold cokes and I paid him what a heap of money to try and appease my potentially misplaced guilt for being a lazy bastard and everyone was happy.
We watched the sunset and enjoyed a killer canned veggie and bully beef curry. Then we had a much needed and BLISSFUL shower to wash of the dust and sweat of the day. And what a day it was! We confirmed that Van Zyl’s deserved its reputation and went to bed clean, with full tummies and pleasantly sore muscles.
Believe it or not this is one of the main roads in the area
The climbs went on and on and on and on
Rocky enough for you. This was the top of probably the longest climb of this track, but there were a couple more which came close
With champagne in short supply in these parts, I had bought along a special treat to celebrate our slaying of the dragon called Van Zyl’s; custard and tinned fruit and we had that for breakfast. Our plan was to go straight on up to Epupa Falls on the Namibia-Angola border and then follow the Kunene River to Ruacana where we would be able to get fuel. That morning we tried to judge the amount of fuel left in our tanks as our planned route would push the limits of our fuel range even with the secondary tanks filled. Mick was concerned that the amount of slow off-road riding would have increased our consumption, even the main tracks were tough and slow and harder then what we had envisioned. My tank was a bit lower than Mick’s, to be expected as my bike spent some time on its side during the Van Zyl’s descent, and both seemed little lower than expected. We decided to keep an eye on the fuel levels and make the ultimate decision to go with the planned route or play conservative when we got to the turn off between the back route through to Epupa or the main route back to Opuwo.
Another chance to clock up some easy km
The day’s riding started off really well and we were able to manage speeds of up to 70km/h on the open sandy plain. As we progressed further up the valley though it got steeper and quite rocky. Along the route we came across another little Himba village where we had a quick chat with some older ladies and gave them some matches, spare eye drops and Panadol I was carrying. We had noticed the older ladies in particular seem to have issues with their eyes due to the constant hammering from the sun and sand. Fortuitously, there was an English speaking guy in the village at the time, which is very uncommon for Kokaoland, and with him we were able to explain and demonstrate how to use the eye drops and where to store them.
A pretty remote Himba Camp
We stopped in for a quick visit and share some excess medical supplies with people who need them more than us
We headed further up the valley and things got even rockier. The riding was slow and unrelenting. Some of the rocky ascents were just ridiculous and went on forever. We would hit them hard and fast then eventually we’d be reduced to first gear and still only half way up before the overheating warning lights came on. After letting the motors cool for a spell, we were up on the pegs again willing the poor DR piggies up the trails. It was fantastic and so hard to fathom we were on one of the main roads in the region.
Namibia excels at wide open spaces
A really fun section that gave us a break from the tough stuff
We stopped for lunch in a sandy creek bed (tuna from a can served with a stick) and we checked fuel levels again. With so much slow off-road riding, we were concerned they were lower than they needed to be to make it to Ruacana. From what we knew of the route, especially this time of year, it would be a long wait were we to run out of fuel. We had been told that sometimes there is fuel available along the way sold from jars, but being summer we weren’t convinced that would not be available, there was simply no-one out there.
We decided to abandon the planned route and take the conservative option of heading back for the guaranteed fuel in Opuwo. Our planned route from Opuwo to Raucana including Van Zyl’s would have been about 620km in total, about 80% rocky and sandy off-road and the rest gravel, and with fuel already lost from my bike and the uncertainty of the roads ahead, Mick was and more concerned about fuel levels. He is generally pretty adventurous with routes but quite conservative with fuel, water and spare parts, and this plan was starting to eat into our fuel redundancy. In a place like this, planning to arrive at a destination with no fuel left is pushing the boundaries too far for him and just asking for trouble.
We weren’t too disappointed as we figured we’d only be missing out on about 50km of off-road tracks by going back through Opuwo. We could get some cold drinks, another good feed and spend the night before filling up and heading to Epupa Falls on the gravel.
So we turned south east back to Opouwo and onto tracks we had already ridden instead on north east to Epupa. Fatigue over the efforts of the last couple of days was setting in and the hot thick, rutted to high heaven sand was getting tougher to negotiate. I dropped the bike a couple of times in some thick riverbed sand. I was annoyed to notice that one of the drops was in the exact same riverbed that downed me the first time I passed through it. Down me once shame on you, down me twice shame on me!
Totally object fixated on the pile of branches marking the hazard …for the second time
We were a whole ‘nother level of exhausted when we arrived back at Opuwo Country Lodge and upon learning their rooms were going for half the usual price we jumped at the chance for some comfort. We needed a good rest and getting a good quality room in Namibia for only $70 is a very rare thing indeed, and we enjoyed the air-conditioned comfort immensely.
The heat radiated off the sand
…especially when you dropped into this thick stuff. There were many dry creek crossings like this one this section of track
Before leaving the next morning we ruined the luxurious esthetic of the lodge was no doubt going for by turning their car park into a makeshift garage so we could take care of some bike maintenance. Mick swapped my half worn tyre out for the new one and in the bid to save space we swapped out my inner tube for the new heavy duty tube we’d been carrying. This also gave us the chance to use the last of the tyre goo we’d been carrying since Windhoek. Unfortunately it didn’t go to plan as the tube got pinched badly while doing the tyre change in a rush in the hot sun. It was seriously hot, probably mid to high 40s and there was almost no shade. After some failed attempts at patching it we conceded that it was irreparable so we ditched it and put the original tube back in. More money down the gurgler…bugger!
Did we mention that we are super keen to go tubeless? Tyre changing is a total pain. We had considered going tubeless before we left but it was just going to be yet another big expense in a long line of big expenses right before we left so we stuck with what we already had. We are thinking if we can get the budget looking more healthy by the time we get to Europe we will go for the conversion. Here’s hoping the travel God’s smile kindly upon the beaten, miserable mess that is our budget over the coming months.
While all this was happening we attracted the attention of a Swiss couple attracted by our sprawling mess. The lovely Swiss lady walked up to us with a look of extreme delight on her face and asked ‘What are you doing? It looks marvelous.’ They were highly interested in our trip, offered us endless encouragement and a place to stay when we went through Switzerland. This is one of the best things about travelling we get to meet so many like-minded people; people that just instantly ‘get it’. Regula (very swiss name) was quite the adventurer herself and despite being at the stage of life when most people are taking things easy, she rides bicycles across countries like Romania and Mexico. Her next trip will see he riding from Finland to St Petersberg. As you do. What a legend!
Knowing we’d be getting a cold drink from the bar before we got on the road they went and arranged for our drinks to be put on their tab. What a kind gesture. We only had a short ride ahead of us on what were good quality gravel roads and we hit the road early afternoon after filling up. Mick was annoyed at himself as he realised that our fuel consumption was as he had expected and we would have made it no problems after all, even with the 1.5l or so lost from my front tank from its horizontal experiences. The one major problem with the TM40 pumper carb conversion is that the float mechanism is very sensitive, and if the bike is on its side it generally starts overflowing petrol. On our way to Epupa we came upon a local place selling petrol which we weren’t aware of so we would have doubley made it to Ruacana no worries. Oh well. The ride was nice, fast and mostly uneventful.
Good gravel roads around Opuwo
I had a minor road rage incident on the way when I was trying to overtake a little VW Polo full of moron foreign tourists driving on the wrong side of the road, swerving left to right like maniacs and generally just trying to kill me. Mick had already overtaken, and we got separated further and further as it was too risky to stay in their dust trail and too dangerous to get close enough to overtake them. Eventually on a long straight they edged a little closer to the correct left hand side of the road, which gave me the chance to open up and get in front. As I approached them I was able to see why they were driving so erratically and unobservantly. They were travelling at almost 100kph on a remote gravel road and were dancing to blaring pop music. I was so pissed off to see them having such a good time not paying attention to what is around them while I had spent the last few minutes in their dust waiting for a safe spot to pass. What they were doing was a juvenile recipe for disaster that I lost my cool and gave them the finger as I rode past. The girl in front thought I was waving so happily blew a kiss back at me. Seeing that the road ahead was in a good condition I held the bike straight with one hand and turned around and gave the most aggressively profane one handed gestures that I think left no room for confusion and I was close enough to see their faces fall.
The top of Epupa Falls
Mick looking over towards Angola, which we couldn’t get visas for. The beer and the vista was a poor consolation
It only took a moment for me to recognise folly of my actions when I realised that there was only one place they would be heading and it was the same place we were going. The chances were good that we would be face to face with these people in a short time. And things would be awkward. Very awkward, especially because I am more bark than bite. Actually I am more run than bark. Sure enough, after we had set up camp and had dinner the VW Polo full of 20yr old foreign girls pulled up to our camp and asked for directions. I sat there in a proud, self-righteous sulk and refused to look at them while Mick answered their questions and they fortunately went off somewhere else for the night. Note to self: no more road rage.
Behold Epupa Falls. Namibia to the right – Angola to the left
Ancient boababs in the middle of the falls
The next morning we checked out the famous Epupa Waterfall and were gratified to find they one of the most stunning waterfalls I had ever visited and well worth the trip. Even with unseasonably low water levels they were impressive and almost otherworldly in appearance with centuries old baobab trees perched on rock outcrops in the middle of the sprawling falls. However, there was one blight on the vista which was the presence of a strange phenomena the likes of which we had noticed in South Africa and other aprts of Namibia as well; religious graffiti. I dig that people are loving their religion but couldn’t reconcile a need to grab a spray can in a place like this to spread their message.
Not a bad spot at all
We ended up leaving late as we spent some time exchanging info and generally chatting with a couple of fellow travellers. After the last few weeks of heavy off road riding I was really starting to tire. Mick did offer that we could take the nice easy route to Kunene River Lodge rather than the difficult trail that followed the river that marked the border to Angola. I was keen to do the easy option but I could tell Mick, as ever, was keen on the rough route. Figuring it was likely to be the last bit of proper off-road we’d do for a while, I succumbed to the hard route. Additionally, I figured it would earn me enough girlfriend points that I planned to cash in later for an extravagant High Tea at the Victoria Falls Hotel. ‘How bad could it be?’ I asked myself. I really wish I had insisted on the easier dirt road as it ended up being hell on a motorcycle. It took us almost 6 hours to cover 98km. It turned out to be an incredibly hard route.
Things started our quite civilised
It started off not too bad as the first 28km were in the very early stages of being made into a proper road. It got us thinking perhaps they have done most of the route and we were in for a not too difficult ride. Folly! While it was less technical than it otherwise would have been, it still took a long time as it was rough country and incredibly hot. The track had seen what we guessed was one or two passes with a bulldozer so all the holes were filled in, but with no road base it was still rocky, rutted and slow going.
There were some extensive and hellish sections of DEEP bulldust that was a real struggle as riding through it was like putting on the brakes and it was so hard to keep the bikes moving fast enough to stay upright. Anyone who has ridden in the stuff before will know that it is very different from sand. In bulldust (or fesh fesh as it is known here) the front wheel sinks and doesn’t float on top as it does with sand with enough speed. It was some of the deepest and most extensive bulldust either of us had experienced but it was entertaining nonetheless.
Deep nasty staff
Mick went first and promptly found the worst line possible
The sun was vicious that day and we stopped by the river at a scenic spot to take some photos and to splash some water on our faces – crocodiles be damned. Although it wasn’t as hot as the day previous, it was still low 40’s and was the first day when we were really feeling the challenge of riding in summer. Having lived in some hot places in Aus we were fortunately acclimatised quite well. One thing we were very grateful for was that the heat in Kaokoland was still manageable in summer. Although it was hot riding it was generally only 40 or low 40’s normally with the odd stinker here and there like the day before, i.e. hot but not really dangerously so. That said we were lucky that the day we did Van Zyl’s was not hot, probably only 40 at most.
My line wasn’t all that much better
Mick swimming in bulldust
Nice deep ruts
After the water break things really got real on the trail as we passed the bulldozer prepping the trail for road construction and got onto the track proper. It was so hard we took barely any photos as it was a struggle for every kilometre gained. The only photos we took were of the easiest sections. How to describe it? Unrelenting, steep, ridiculously rocky and eroded ascents and descents. Some of the climbs were so bloody long and some of the descents were so steep and full of deep washouts. The rocks were a hellish mixture of diabolical, sharp angular rocks that threatened to tear tyres and huge, round rolling river rocks that constantly pushed us offline. The worst stretches where only layers upon layer of rocks that functioned like a slow moving treadmill under your tyres. I was so worn out from what had been a heavy schedule of technical riding and I was not altogether happy after a couple stacks, one of which cracked my newly repaired fairing and breaking an indicator. My poor bloody bike had been copping a beating of late despite all her hard work and loyalty.
Found some more
We figured/hoped there were no crocs here
I even temporarily forgot my lifetime phobia of crocodile to wet my face
Just a short swim to Angola
Knackered and the hard part hadn’t even begun
It was really hard work. Really hard and quite awful. Once again there were tears (from me), which meant it was proper serious riding. Our progress was much slower than expected and the sun was rapidly going down. While riding my bike out of a deep rut in a bastard rocky section Mick ended dropping the bike and bruising his left hand really badly. I suspect he may have actually broken a bone in his thumb. It swelled up immediately and looked really bad, and worse still he now was forced to move and lift bikes with only one good hand.
With no option but going on, he got back and we went on. However the pain in his hand was amplified by jolting of the rocky trail, so we tried to find/blaze a track right along the river’s edge. Better sand than rock with a hand injury…but no dice there was far too much vegetation. There was no trail to be had so we sat under a tree while we considered our options with Mick’s massively swollen left hand. While he didn’t mention it at the time, Mick later admitted that he was worried he might have pushed it just a bit too far this time. The benefit of riding as a pair isn’t as significant when there is only one person to lift a downed bike. When that person gets injured, what next?
After about 40 minutes of resting and frustratedly contemplating our next move, we realised we had only one; harden the fuck up and ride. So it was back to the rocky rollercoaster of the main trail. He was in a lot of pain as I could hear him groaning in discomfort through the intercom as he negotiated the toughest sections. Mick soon went into robot mode as we knuckled down and focused on getting to where we needed to be.
Preparing for another rocky climb on a flatter easier bit
This sequences demonstrates rolling rock induced ugly riding (this is one of the easy sections)
Just when we thought the hard stuff was finally over there was yet another mammoth rocky ‘as all get out’ climb. It was then that I realised that I hated this Godforsaken track. It was even harder than I feared it might be. We kept pushing on and we were able to watch the sunset over the only scenic section we came across on the trail. The river was still and the sky was made pink and purple as the sun dipped below the horizon. Great. Now it was dark. We were still a while away from the lodge and soon enough it was pitch black. It is times like this when we feel happy with our decision to install powerful headlights on the bikes. While you never plan on riding in the dark it will happen at some point and at that point you want to be able to see well.
Rolling rocks of doom (another easy section). The worst bits were steeper, ruttier and rockier
Finally we arrived at the Kunene River Lodge and it was well after 8pm. I was beyond glad to see the last of the difficult riding….. at least for that day. We were both ABSOLUTELY DESTROYED! Putting up a tent was simply not an option. We lacked the energy and brainpower to erect a tent at that point and were actually struggling to communicate clearly. I was actually slurring my words in exhaustion. Despite the $140 price tag for a cabin we took it, such was our desperation for rest. And that is how we have pummeled the budget; by wearing ourselves out so thoroughly that a $140 room is the only option.
I managed to arrange a 12pm check-out in lieu of a discount and we got the staff to feel sorry for us enough that they went and opened the bar for us. I was so physically and emotionally exhausted and just so happy that it was over that I quietly wept into my drink. Fortunately the room was excellent and after a long shower we were starting to feel human again. Unfortunately all through the night I kept dreaming of riding steep rocky climbs and struggled to get the rest I needed and paid so much for. Mick had a similar experience.
Kunene River Lodge – a nice spot
Mick repairing my poor fairing for the second time in a just a few days
We stayed on another day (in the campground this time) and caught up on rest and did some bike maintenance and repairs. Mick applied more epoxy to my fairing and replaced my broken indicator. Mick carries spares for everything. He also removed the filter skins, which became well and truly clogged with bulldust.
We left the Kunene River Lodge a little later than planned as we got talking to the cool owners who had a lot of local knowledge and recommendations for us. They told us about the last bikers they had come to the lodge by the nasty route we took. It didn’t end well for them. By the sounds of it they were on big bikes and out of their depth. One of the guys crashed badly on a rocky descent and broke his leg (femur and tib+fib) in 3 places. He then had to wait on his own for help in the hottest month of the year under a tree for 2 DAYS! He was so injured that he could not take off his bike gear, he just sat there. His friend went for help but got to a section that he just could not ride so had to leave the bike and walk for help. He didn’t get very far in that two days but did come across two other highly capable bikers who managed get word of the accident to the owners of the Kunene River Lodge. Eventually the lodge owners got to the poor bugger who must have been in untold levels of pain. One wonders how he is doing now. Poor Fella.
Grubby filter skins from sucking up bulldust. But the benefit of these is that with it pushed to the side…
..the main filter is clean underneath, it’s a poor mans filter clean, great for the trailside. We run Funnelweb filters. Made it Oz for maximum surface area and they are excellent
It is tales like that that make us glad that we carry the InReach with us. If we were in that same situation we would have been able to get the word of our misfortune out immediately and have someone with us potentially within hours, all going well. The InReach has a texting option where you can give full details of your situation. You really can’t put a price on being able to communicate such things as ‘we are fine and have enough water and food but need a bike recovery and ride out’ or ‘I have a badly broken my femur and have no water’. Heck, if you wanted to you could post your tale of woe on Facebook though the InReach, while you are waiting for rescue and be sending and receiving messages with your loved ones. These things are lifesavers and in the case you were lying in pain, alone, under a tree for 2 days the two-way communication would have been a huge source of comfort, I would imagine. We have used the SPOT messenger system before and were pleased with it but the InReach is really a whole ‘nother level of peace of mind.
We got to Ruacana in pretty good time as the road was nicely graded dirt. When we hit the tar road, Mick noticed his bike having some difficulty at higher revs and thought it might be due to the main jet having something caught up in it. He didn’t think it a big issue at the time but resolved to look into it later.
Mick’s injured left hand 24 hours later. It looked a lot like something was broken but Mick stopped talking about it after a couple of days
The start of the tar represented the end of our Kaokoland adventure and we were sad to be saying goodbye to a region we had fallen in love with. It really is an adventure rider’s paradise, particularly for those who enjoy solitude, remote places and being self-sufficient. We leave the place having toured it quite extensively but there remained a few tracks that we’d love to come back and do, namely the Marienfluss Valley all the way up to the Kunene River in the far north west of the country, and Mick is mad enoughto want to try Van Zyls upwards. For anyone that is used to a bit of heat I would recommend Kaokoland in summer as one of the best times to visit the area. It is hot, but not oppressively so, and it is the tourist low season which gives you the place to yourself and on the cheap. Car hire in this time for example is half the usual price.
Riding the last stretch of gravel road for some time. Catch ya Kaokoland! It’s been swell
With the big challenge over, it was now just a matter of picking up our tyres that were waiting for us at our friend Johan’s brother’s house in Grootfontein. If we could make it there today that gave us 2 days to cover the 800-odd km to the border before our visa’s expired. No worries we thought.
Just hours after lamenting the bad luck of the bikers on the Kunene River trail, we found ourselves in a spot of misfortune ourselves. On the highway at about 70km/h, I t-boned a galloping donkey. The bike went down, the donkey went down and in the blink of an eye I was sliding head first face down the tar. This was an unexpected, and altogether unwelcome, turn of events.